Wenger, Bruce, and the club-versus-country debate

November 25, 2009

Ah, good old Arsene Wenger. I get so much material from his comments, and once again one of his interviews has brought up another interesting topic. I actually quite like the guy, but sometimes he makes the odd quip I vehemently disagree with. He made such a comment just yesterday.

Club versus country arguments are tricky affairs these days, and Wenger has reacted angrily to a question about Theo Walcott and the World Cup.

“We do not pay players to go to the World Cup. We pay them to do well for Arsenal. The first pride of a man is to do well for the guy who pays you in life,” he said.

Now as much as I understand the sentiment, I cannot help but disagree. Yes, Arsenal pay the player, they coach him and they develop him. But if you were to ask any player ‘what do you aspire to?’, anybody whose first answer does not include ‘play at a world cup’ wants shooting.

I understand Wenger’s perspective. I appreciate it must infuriate managers when their star players are unavailable for weeks or even months at a time, even more so when they get injured playing for their country. A player getting injured in an international friendly must be the worst of all.

However, if you were to ask an English football fan would they rather their club win a trophy or England win an international competition, I believe 9 out of 10 would take the national team. And, quite frankly, so they should. (I’m not quite sure about Scotland fans, particularly when you take the Old Firm into account. It would seem Celtic and Rangers fans don’t want to agree on anything, so in my experience many have abandoned Scotland for the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland/England. But to avoid opening a can of worms, I’ll stick with England fans for the sake of this blog.)

Now Mr Wenger’s first loyalty is always going to be to Arsenal, and I would hope his players have the professionalism to be able to put the World Cup to the back of their minds. That being said, EVERY Premier League player should want to go to the World Cup. I believe Wenger would have got more out of his players by playing up the World Cup, not diminishing it. Indeed, Steve Bruce took that approach with Darren Bent, and that praise for his striker will lift his confidence and lead to better performances. It may even earn him a call up ahead of Heskey or Crouch. Indeed, if goals are the barometer for a striker, he’d be on the plane already.

One of my pet hates as a football fan is seeing a plethora of players pull out of international squads, normally at the request of their clubs. Manchester United used to be the biggest culprits. How many times was Paul Scholes removed from England duty because of ‘injury’, only to line up for United the following Saturday? Now many top clubs complain about ‘pointless friendlies’. I couldn’t disagree more. An international manager has maybe a dozen games a year to assess his squad. He needs friendlies in order to have his players gel before qualifiers and international tournaments. However, clubs pulling all their best players out of international squads MAKE the friendlies pointless. And I can give you an example.

England’s game against Brazil a couple of weeks ago had possibly 2 of Capello’s favoured 11. Because of that, England could not properly test themselves against the best in the world, the reason why the friendly was booked in the first place. (Well, that and an add-on to the Wembley friendly a couple of years ago.) But it was the actions of the clubs that made this game worthless. Yes, I accept there were a few genuine injuries, but how many players were back in their club sides the next week?

Trouble is, the clubs have so much power these days. I can see international friendlies becoming a thing of the past, simply because clubs won’t release players. But it doesn’t stop there. I seem to remember several clubs trying to stop players going to the Olympics and the African Cup of Nations. It’s ridiculous! Top clubs sign players who are internationals and then COMPLAIN when they play for their country! Mind-boggling.

The danger here though is if clubs can stop a player from playing in a friendly, then move on to the Olympics and African nations, what’s to stop clubs pulling players out of the European Championships or the Copa America? And then moving on to the World Cup?

Now some may say I’m being OTT. Fine, I may be a bit of an alarmist, but there’s a reason for that. There is nothing like international football for bringing the country together (or tearing it apart, depending on the result!) How much do we look forward to the World Cup/ European Championships, to large barbeques or days in the pub? How much do we enjoy the camaraderie shared with fans of every club, of congas in the street or jumping in fountains? How many of us have experienced nights we’ll never ever forget through the beauty of international football?

Those nights to me are sacred. The massive highs and the crushing lows that only come with the international game, and they MUST be preserved.

Portugal recently insisted Christiano Ronaldo reported to them despite Real’s protestations he was injured. I can’t but help applaud Carlos Queiroz for his standpoint, and if I was England manager I’d do the same. I think it’s time to end the sicknote mentality, and make clubs understand that national sides supercede all club sides.

Under Fabio Capello, England have a manager strong enough to do just that. Wenger can stick his bottom lip out all he wants, but Capello will undoubtedly pull rank if he has to. And that, my friends, will see the theatre of international football live long into the night.

Roll on June 11th.

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